- Kevin Keegan
No 'I' in new-look Arsenal teamKevin Keegan October 6, 2012
Seven years is a long time in football and it must feel like an eternity to Arsene Wenger. After the opportunities to win silverware passed them by again last season, Arsenal have looked determined to remedy that infamous drought this time around. The departure of Robin van Persie meant that expectation was a little lower this time around but despite no longer boasting an outstanding individual, they're probably now more of a team.
It's a body blow for the players who have got ambition at the club because they would obviously rather see another top class player come in rather than have one leave. If you're an Arsenal player, or an Arsenal fan, you're more or less resigned to it now though, after Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri also exited the club in recent years. However Arsene has handled it right: if a player is not going to commit to the club, you have to just move on without him. Sometimes a disappointing departure prompts other people step up to the plate and they share out the responsibility more among the team. I think that's what's happened at Emirates Stadium.
Lukas Podolski isn't as good as Van Persie but he works hard and he's got different qualities; he's scoring goals at the moment and he's working his socks off for the team. Maybe that's the new Arsenal: it's not about one or two star players but about the team. Maybe that's the way forward with the players they've got.
Another of their new signings, Santi Cazorla, has been great to watch; after coming in under the radar a little bit from Malaga, he's adapted very well to the Premier League. As an Englishman, it's disappointing to have to say it but the players coming to the Premier League from Spain are just so much more technically proficient than our homegrown lads. It's not just about Real Madrid and Barcelona, either, as all the other clubs are playing against them, watching how they and the national team play, and are trying to replicate it.
Cazorla is the latest but we've also had Juan Mata and David Silva who have been a cut above over the past couple of years. Five years ago people would have looked at these players and said they were too small to handle the physicality of the Premier League but that was a load of rubbish; it just hasn't been the case because they are such gifted, adaptable players. As well as Cazorla, Silva and Mata, there's Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United, Eden Hazard at Chelsea - players who have got a low centre of gravity, high levels of skill and also plenty of courage. Cazorla looks like a player who has got it all; you'd love to play centre-forward with him behind you because he's always looking to create opportunities for others, not just score himself.
A lot has been made about Arsenal's transfer policy and I think deep down Arsene would have liked to have keep all of the players who have left. But he's a realist. Arsenal are an incredibly well run club and they've been a working model of Financial Fair Play for years; Arsene should be the most sought-after manager in the world for the way he operates the club. They may not have won any silverware for several years but Arsenal are always up there or thereabouts competing for the big trophies. If you are a businessman who wants to bring someone in who will keep the house in order, keep most people happy on wages that are not sky high and refuses to be dictated to by his employees - Arsene Wenger would be your man.
It's understandable that the supporters crave more, however. They desperately want trophies and would love to just break off the shackles one year and gamble on buying players rather than balancing the books. I can empathise with both sides - fans obviously want their club to be winning silverware, but as a manager who has worked for people who sometimes say 'you can only spend what you get in', or 'this is our wage limit and we're not breaking it under any circumstances', I think Wenger must be commended for doing a wonderful job within the constraints of a similar remit.
When that frustrating wait for a trophy ends, we should rightly have nothing but praise for Arsene; he is already placed right up there behind Sir Alex Ferguson as one of the greatest managers we've seen in English football. He's got to be, having spent 16 years at one of the world's biggest clubs and kept them fighting in the top four, while the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea have thrown bucketloads of cash at their teams. Arsene Wenger is about shrewd management and his primary concern is to make sure Arsenal Football Club is around forever. That is some legacy and I still think 99% of Arsenal fans want him to stay.
Whether Arsenal can reclaim the Premier League title this season remains to be seen. I personally feel that it is going to be beyond them but they face a good test this weekend away to West Ham. While Arsene's Arsenal have become known for playing a certain way, Sam Allardyce's teams are known for a physical, effective brand at football that has reaped rewards at every club he's been at.
The players he has brought in reflect that and in Matt Jarvis, they have got the nearest thing to David Beckham in terms of being able to get crosses in without beating a man. I don't just mean bog-standard crosses, but the sort of crosses that centre-forwards are dying for and central defenders dread. I watched him against QPR and the way he moves the ball to create space to deliver is just so impressive. With the likes of Andy Carroll, Carlton Cole and Kevin Nolan looking to get on the end of them, it's a great asset.
Sam's had to fight the history of West Ham since he's been there - a tradition of attacking football that some fans have been unhappy not to see regularly repeated. But Sam Allardyce is a different answer and the supporters must consider whether they want to play solid football that will help them stay up and build a Premier League platform or go down, playing attractive tippy-tappy football. Everyone knows Sam has always done well with the former but he's always had that problem of getting fans to buy into his realistic approach, what he believes in. However, he got them back into the Premier League and he deserves the chance to manage in this division and try to win the West Ham fans over. If they get a result in games like the one this weekend, I'm sure he'll have West Ham fans drooling soon enough.
West Ham won't be in the relegation picture this season; I think the Andy Carroll signing underlines their ambition; the board don't want another battle for survival. It's a clever loan signing for them because Nolan and he get on well, they're good friends and have a good understanding on the pitch too, where and how he's going to flick it. The way West Ham play will pose a challenge for Arsenal because they have been vulnerable at set-pieces and balls in the air despite Steve Bould coming in to try to steady the ship as a defensive coach. West Ham fans will think they've got a chance to turn them over and they certainly have. But if Arsenal defend properly they've got the extra bit of ability, whether it's a piece of vision from Cazorla or a well-timed run from Podolski, to win this game.
Kevin Keegan is ESPN's Lead Football Analyst